Homeland for the Holidays

On a three-week journey across western Europe and the Middle East, our writer asks exactly it means to have pride for your country – and the place your family is from

July 30, 2017 – Edmonton Airport
As a child I thought the Arabic term for Lebanon was “the Balaad.” That’s what my parents called it whenever they fondly remembered their life before Canada, before I was born. This other world, as they described it, was somehow a more difficult place, yet culturally superior. I was seven when I finally visited the Balaad and learned the word actually means “homeland.” And it was apparent that Lebanon was definitely not my Balaad. Canada was.

Yet during this year’s sesquicentennial celebrations I felt only a twinge of pride for my homeland and nothing resembling the romance my parents feel for theirs, however flawed it was. Do third, fourth, and fifth generation Canadians feel that way too? Like a piece of your heart lives far away, in a place foreign yet familiarized by the photos and stories your family has shared? It’s a question I’m asking before my three-week journey across western Europe and the Middle East.

August 1, 2017 – London, UK
Getting lost on London’s tortuous roads at night makes you realize what a toddler the nation and notion of Canada is. One random right turn through a stony courtyard and—what’s this, a pub that turned 350 this year as a rebuild? The original burned in the Great Fire of 1666.

The rebuild on its own is nearly three times the age of Edmonton’s oldest structure, a wooden riverside house. “Under Fifteen Sovereigns” declares Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s scroll-like sign. Even under the monarchy, we’ve only seen six reigns. Perhaps their affections for the largest and most loyal commonwealth nation are more than feigned, but Queen Elizabeth missed the Canada 150 celebrations this year. The ambivalence feels mutual. Even though the Queen’s approval rating in Canada—yes, such a thing exists—is very high, I’d bet our sovereignty that Canadians feel more loyalty to Drake.

Today, at Buckingham Palace, the scene was overpriced gelato, security horses sipping out of fountains, and tourists taking clumsy selfies with near invisible guards 100 metres behind the iron gates. There’s a small summer stretch when the Palace opens a side gate for tourists to see the State Rooms and Royal Collection Trust for £23. Categorized by continent, the exhibits are cultural exchanges, gifts Her Majesty has accumulated from other state and city leaders during her 70 years on the throne. The velvety decor of the baroque and Renaissance rooms demonstrate the reach of her power, and the power of cultures far older than ours: Ukraine’s nephrite egg with a gold filigree, Portugal’s silver-threaded horse saddle, the Vatican’s canonizing decree (this one having belonged to King Edward the Confessor).

Author Omar Mouallem. Photograph: Curtis Comeau

I fully expected to find a hockey stick in the Americas display, but found an even more humble offering: a pair of red mittens, official swag from the Vancouver 2010 Olympics (which the Queen also did not attend), given to her by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Did he pick them up last minute from the airport Roots shop?

Around the mittens, however, other leaders have made earnest attempts to show Canada’s historical significance. The City of Drumheller presented her with an extinct dinosaur’s fossilized humerus, while a stone carving, small totem pole and painting represented the cultures that Canada and the British Empire at one time tried systematically to erase.

Later that night, I drank beer with two Brits, a Swiss and a Mexican, the last an old college roommate who happened to be passing through London at the same time, and who affectionately recalled the delicious donairs I introduced him to in Vancouver. We discussed foreign policy, statehood and, of course, Donald Trump. My companions described their notion of the new Canada under the governance of a feminist, refugee-hugging hunk: a serial viral sensation. “You must be relieved,” said the Englishman. “America elected a madman. We sabotaged ourselves with Brexit. But Canada is so cool now.”

The standard of excellence for a nation in the confused West has dropped significantly, but from the outside looking in, the sudden faith foreigners have in Canada—most or all of it relative to America’s decline in credibility and civility—makes Canada 150 seem like a turning point in our global standing. Even if I don’t feel it myself.

August 4, 2017 – Salzburg, Austria
This 21-day trip combining sight-seeing and work all started with a wedding invitation. My dear friend from Calgary is marrying an Austrian, and they’ve organized four days of group events for their guests, weaving in the local Mozart Festival and a bike tour of Sound Of Music landmarks. The reception itself will be inside a venue that was home to the Von Trapps in the 1960s movie.

In Edmonton, up until quite recently, we tended to knock down old buildings to make room for parking lots, whereas Austrians protect landmarks so carefully that they’d rather cast unattractive netting over architectural statues than let pigeons defile them.

Everything in the old town feels as if it were etched in ink by a fairy-tale book illustrator. And yet Austrians seem to suffer from the same inferiority complex as Canadians. On the world’s stage, we are the lesser nations, the knock-offs to something more noble in good times and more frightening in bad times. At a family picnic in Hellbrunn Park, near the 17th-century Prince-Archbishop’s yellow palace and pleasure garden, I asked Philipp, the groom, whether Austrians endured misconceptions from their overbearing neighbours. Many Americans, I explained, generalize Canadians as pathologically contrite and polite; what were German stereotypes of the Austrian?

“They think we are too relaxed, like lazy,” he explained. “This is not true. We are very punctual. But, to be honest, they do not think about us as much as we think about them.” That’s also true of the Canadian-American dynamic.

The United States has always occupied an oversized region of the collective Canadian psyche, a space we must wade through on our way to identifying ourselves. But it’s a one-way obsession. In fact, earlier this week, leaked transcripts of Trump’s call with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto suggested as much: “Do not worry about Canada, we do not even think about them,” he told Nieto.

I suppose we should be relieved.

August 8, 2017 – Krakow, Poland
More than staring up through the holes atop the gas chamber, more than scratching the dusty, stacked wood palettes that functioned as bunks for emaciated women, it was the eyeglasses at Auschwitz-Birkenau that punched my guts the hardest. They were blackened and bent, piled about two feet high, 10 feet long, with wiry frames knotted together much like the mound of human hair displayed in the next room. The heap of metal was sickeningly large, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of pairs, yet it represented only a fraction of what was yanked off the confused faces of mostly Jewish prisoners and sent to warehouses called “Kanada 1 and 2.”

That’s what the Polish prisoners themselves called the warehouses, because Canada, to them, was a land of abundance. These two buildings were stocked with money, pearls, pottery, precious items confiscated, sorted, and shipped back to Germany on the same train that had just unloaded thousands of new victims. Sorting the booty in Kanada was considered the best job for prisoners, neither as gruelling as the coal mines nor as horrible as picking gold from the mouths of corpses scheduled for incineration. But jobs at Kanada didn’t last long either, explained my soft-spoken tour guide; when workers became wise to the overall operations of the camp, they knew it was just a matter of time before someone would be plucking their gold teeth.

Canada the nation remained a hopeful place in the abstract for the prisoners of Kanada 1 and 2

Yet Canada the nation remained a hopeful place in the abstract for these prisoners.

Tonight I listened to live klezmer, Jewish folk music from eastern Europe, in Krakow’s Kazimierz district. I’m staying in an apartment in the Old Jewish Quarter that played a small role in Schindlers List but a huge role in the hourly Schindlers List walking tours that wake me every morning. Drinking wine in the glow of a large menorah, I wondered if the Auschwitz prisoners understood the real Canada of those years. The one that, like Cuba and the United States, denied entrance to 907 Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis because a high-ranking immigration officer said of them that “none was too many.”

A quarter of the passengers would be murdered in Nazi death camps and, by the end of the war, only about 5,000 Jewish refugees made it to our land of plenty; three times as many Jewish-Canadian soldiers travelled the other way to serve our country.

Maybe the high human cost of this failure was necessary for the real Canada to leap closer to its modern reputation as a welcoming nation. Blatantly racist immigration rules of the 1920s finally crumbled, allowing Kanada to step out of the abstract, and a truly colourful wave of immigration to pursue Canada’s sought-after passport.

August 11, 2017 – Tel Aviv, Israel
My passport photo makes friends laugh. I don’t look particularly unruly in it, but it was taken during the single brief phase of my life when I grew a lumberjack beard. Fixed next to my name, that beard is enough to warrant a second look from most airport personnel.

“Do you ever get hassled?” my friends often ask.

“No, because this,” I usually respond, flipping to the glimmering Canadian crest on the cover, “is what actually matters.”

I’m beginning to doubt that after three hours of questioning, waiting and re-questioning at Tel Aviv’s David Ben Gurion airport. From the moment I showed it to passport control, I’ve wondered if it’s really your parents passport that matters.

“Omar Mouallem?” he asked, appraising my grizzly old mug. “What is the origin of your name?” He was confused because my last name is also a common Hebrew name, but my first name is more likely to be Arab or Islamic, two character traits he suspects of me but won’t ask so bluntly. I told him my parents are Lebanese. “Lebaneez,” he said in a higher pitch. “We need you to go into that room on the left, with the TV.” He tucked my passport under his desk.

How much can you tell about a person from their passport? What do the stamps from your travels say about where your heart is, for whom you have sympathies? What does your birth country say that your nationality doesn’t? How different might the person in the portrait be from the one standing in front of you?

I pondered this while I sat in the room on the left with a TV, eight sandwiches, a dozen men and two women. They were Arab, African and Caucasian; bearded, clean-shaven and made-up with cosmetics; donned in white robes and Hawaiian shirts. The similarities were more in the origins of the names they called up for questioning: Ali, Saleh, Salam, Omar.

I code-switched to patriot Canadian, emphasizing my nationality and anglicizing my father and grandfather’s names before the officials had me write them down on a slip of paper, then write them again with a different interviewer, who sent me back to my seat after he established that my last name was “not Jewish.”

The room on the left with the TV is quiet and miserable. Nobody asks questions, except for the rowdy French guys, who are not getting answers. A woman my mom’s age with dyed blond hair and bold jewellery sobbed most of the time. I wanted to fill a cup of lukewarm water for her from the broken cooler, but I didn’t, nobody did, because when you’re pushed to suspect yourself how can you trust a stranger? It was better not to make alliances and be friendly with personnel, even though a part of me wanted to act like the French boys, obnoxiously splay my legs across the aisle, demand a cigarette even though I don’t smoke.

Instead I kept smiling, answering the same questions over and over again about my reasons for being here, about my parents, about my visits to Lebanon, about theirs. Then a curveball: have I ever written about Israeli-Palestinian conflicts? Do I consider Palestine a state? All of this is to determine the first number of the barcode they’ll stick on my passport when I depart in six days. Will it start with 1, the lowest risk, or the 6 for hostile internationals?

August 14, 2017 – Bethlehem, West Bank
I know one place in Israel where the crest on my passport actually matters: the West Bank, where I’m repeatedly reminded of why I have more rights than Palestinians, whose green identity papers keep them out of areas exclusively under Israeli control, usually at the front of Jewish settlements, as well as Israel proper itself. Without a work permit or special permission, Palestinians couldn’t penetrate the wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but all I needed to do was hop in a yellow-plated cab. The yellow plates are for Israeli cars, the green-plated cabs are for Palestinians and the furthest it can take them is the border turnstile with an hours-long queue every morning.

I’m staying in a hostel inside Dheisheh, a fourth generation refugee camp in Bethlehem that’s basically now a subdivision. There’s a palpable anger here. Not rage. Not violence. But anger stemming from the futility of their lives. The hot cement walls are adorned with symbols of resistance, such as the painted on brass keys representing the door locks that awaited the missing grandparents of the inhabitants, who believed until the bitter end that they’d one day return. There are also posters and paintings of young people killed by Israeli soldiers in conflicts, in raids, in everyday confrontations. They call them martyrs; I call them dead young men and boys.

Every conversation I’ve had in Dheisheh has centred around the same things. The occupation, and colonialism-themed hotel/museum about the occupation secretly opened by Bansky, the world’s most famous living artist. The top-hatted doorman and marquee lights of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel, situated as it is in Bethlehem’s cement jungle, stand out like someone snuck a frame from a Wes Anderson movie into Black Hawk Down. Next door, you can rent spray paint and stencils to paint the imposing border wall directly outside the hotel.

I got my passport back to see I had been assigned a 6. Hostile international. And Canadian.

Palestinians are monetizing the occupation and squeezing some value from this hell. Taxi drivers offer to show you famous murals on the wall and guides give occupation-themed tours. In Hebron, I was led through the raucous souk, where the stretches of fruits, sweets and mobile phone accessories seemed never to end—until they did. The merchants announcing their goods over the buzzing crowd quieted to a pattering around mostly shuttered garage bays as we neared the so-called “Ghost Town.”

The outdoor souk pathways were suddenly covered in cages littered with buckets, shoes, socks, boulders that have been dropped from Jewish settlers living in the buildings above. Past the turnstile that everyone must pass through to enter Ibrahimi Mosque, as it’s known to Muslims, or the Cave of the Patriarchs to Jews, we reached a point where my guide handed me over to another guide with special access to the Ghost Town—his Palestinian family was one of the few that remained after Palestinian shops, offices and bus stations were forced to close. Vibrant for thousands of years, Hebron now feels like a walk through a museum park after hours. Jewish settlers, many of whom are in fact American and considered radical by Israelis themselves, waited at exclusive bus stops on deserted streets, never far from armed soldiers, but just in case, some settlers carried handguns too. I passed a tall, multi-family home decked out in Israeli flags and banners, a home that its original Palestinian owner told Al Jazeera was taken over by force. Two Israeli soldiers guarded it in patio chairs by the front door.

Around the bend, a couple of Arab boys rode their small bikes in circles behind a chain-link fence encompassing their home. It was locked from the outside. How long has this fence been here? I asked my guide. “Two months,” he said. It felt horrible to stare in as if we were at a zoo, but we couldn’t look away from the oppression unfolding before our eyes. Perhaps a century ago Canada didn’t feel so different to the bleeding-heart foreigner bearing witness to a residential school. Perhaps I’m a beneficiary of the same process that happened centuries ago.

A tourist beside me, an Arab woman I believe lived in North America, covered her mouth disgusted. She asked one of the boys why it was locked. Of course, he didn’t have an answer—he was five. The soldiers in the booth outside the home did not betray sorrow, but my heart broke, and it felt as if it was my whole heart, though maybe it was only the part of my heart that lives in another homeland a few hundred kilometres north of here.

A boy in Hebron. Photograph: Omar Mouallem

A politically active Palestinian who works at the hostel asked me about this last night. At first he was ambivalent to me, playing Candy Crush outside while I caught some cool air. My Arabic was clumsy and my lighter skin could easily have made me part of the dozen Italian NGO volunteers staying as guests. But once he learned my name, he wanted to know where I was from. Originally.

“My parents are from Lebanon, but I’m Canadian.”

“So you’re Lebanese.”

“Yes, I also have Lebanese citizenship.”

“Well, of course you’re Lebanese then,” he said in impeccable English, still playing on his phone, now smiling out the side of his mouth. This felt like the reverse of my experience in London, where people only wanted to discuss my Canadian-ness, and where my Lebanese citizenship wasn’t even acknowledged, let alone questioned.

“What do you think of Hassan Nasrallah?” he asked, referring to the leader of Hezbollah—a party and militia in Lebanon, a terrorist group just about everywhere else. You know, a common icebreaker. I gave him a tepid answer: my feelings are neither good nor bad. I don’t agree with Hezbollah’s politics and practises but I won’t deny the group’s importance to defending the Shia minority and bringing an end to Southern Lebanon’s own 15-year Israeli occupation

He put away his phone. “You make it sound like both sides have some good and bad, but it’s actually quite simple. Hezbollah is not about politics, it’s about freedom.” I responded with the most progressive-sounding cop-out I could muster, that my opinions weren’t as important as those of Lebanese or Palestinians who’d lived under occupation. I ventured that it was not my place to speak for them.

“I’m going to be very honest,” he said. “OK? Don’t get mad at me.” He waited for my permission. “I don’t like what you just said, ‘Oh, I’m Canadian, I’m not true Lebanese, I can’t understand what it’s like.’ This is what they want. They want to disconnect you from your roots.”

August 16, 2017 – Ben Gurion Airport
Suspicion confirmed. I got my passport back to see that I had been assigned a 6. Hostile international. And Canadian.

August 21, 2017 – Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
I was technically in Iraq, a short drive from Mosul, which was recently freed from ISIS, and not far enough from the still embattled Baghdad, but all I could think about was an independent homeland. Palestinians now number 12 million, more than the number of stateless Jews in 1945. Today, the Kurdish are the world’s largest ethnic group without a Balaad. But maybe not for long.

The bustling bazaar in the centre of this ancient city felt ordinary for this part of the world, men crowding one side of the street with barbers and tailors and women on the other side with produce and seamstresses, but there was a quiet excitement and anxiety. After 140 years of Kurdish nationalism, after innumerable battles, countless dead in three-front battles with Turkey, Iran and Iraq, after thousands gassed by Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan Regional Government is to hold a referendum on statehood in the fall of 2017. In the summer, most Kurds believed it would be won in a landslide, but were still nervous about what that would mean for Middle Eastern relations, or whether it was a smart purchase at a time when economic instability had slashed public salaries by three-quarters. Unlike the West Bank, Iraqi Kurds live peacefully and safely, going about their perfunctory days and moving between clean, wide roads with little hassle. Still, speaking with locals, Kurds tell me stability is a risk worth taking.

Here was a people with their own language and culture refined over a thousand years. Their sense of themselves is clearer than what most of us experience as “Canadian.” But a single day of independence when all these virtues are celebrated does not exist. It’s the opposite of Canada. We have the party but can’t always agree on what to celebrate. What is ours, what is Britain’s? What is unique, what is not American? How much of the story of Canada’s Indigenous people do we even have the right to tell, when Confederation Day accelerated their near-erasure?

Simply living in a place so stable that I rarely consider these questions makes me grow fonder of Canada. But I don’t feel as though viewing it from afar, in countries of discord and pain, has given me a stronger connection to my homeland. For that, perhaps one must leave the Balaad, as my parents did. Or maybe the idea of a homeland must be just out of reach, or withheld, in order to grow truly fond of it. That does not seem like something worth asking for.

This story was produced for the Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) High Level Lit project — a partnership between ECF, Eighteen Bridges, and LitFest to mark Canada’s 150th birthday. Homeland for the Holidays won best personal journalism story at the 2018 National Magazine Awards.Listen to ECF’s interview with Omar Mouallem on The Well-Endowed Podcast

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